€5bn National Broadband Plan will not be another children's hospital debacle – Tánaiste

TÁNAISTE Simon Coveney insisted the €5bn National Broadband Plan would not prove another National Children’s Hospital costs debacle for the Government.

Mr Coveney, speaking with Rural Development Minister Michael Ring and Enterprise Minister Heather Humphreys, firmly rejected comparisons between the two projects – and said the broadband plan was the only way in which rural Ireland could keep pace with future development in Ireland’s urban centres.

The Cork TD insisted the plan chosen by the Government offered the most cost-effective way of bringing high speed fibre broadband to very home in Ireland.

Mr Ring insisted that the overwhelming reaction on the doorsteps in the Local Government and European Parliament elections reflected that rural voters fully understood the critical importance of gaining access to high speed broadband.

“The issues on the doorsteps in rural Ireland are broadband, broadband and broadband,” Mr Ring said.

Ms Humphreys said the project was vital if people were to have the choice of living and working in rural Ireland.

Mr Coveney stressed that the broadband plan was very different to the NCH where costs had spiralled to alarming levels.

“They are two very different projects – we have no made political decisions around the national broadband plan without knowing the full cost,” he said.

“The National Children’s Hospital was different.”

“There were decisions made to move ahead with that where the cost estimates were wrong. The State and people working for the State on a contract basis got that wrong.”

“We have learned lessons from that and we have put systems in place to make sure it does not happen again.”

“Before making decisions on big capital infrastructure projects now, there does need to be certainty and clarity on the full cost.”

He insisted that the full costs of the broadband plan were known – and that the private sector were taking a significant element of the cost risk in the project.

“That is why the National Broadband Plan is very different to the National Children’s Hospital.”

“Because we have approved politically last week the preferred bidder knowing fully what the cost implications may be – it will be somewhere between €2bn and €3bn we will spend here depending on what happens and how the market develops, potential clawbacks and so on.”

More than €2bn of the project cost will be funded by the preferred bidder.

“Some of that money will come back also because it is VAT,” he said.

“It is a very big investment and we know that – we have been open and transparent with it. We have had a very active and challenging debate within Government to make sure we are happy with this decision.”

He said he welcomed the stance of some within departments to ensure the plan was debated and even challenged.

“That is what the Department of Public Expenditure is there for – to robustly test big decisions like this one.”

“We are making the decision to go ahead.”

“Fine Gael is a party that is prudent – repeatedly we have shown that when others have through policy mistakes destroyed and undermined an economy, we have been asked by the people and put into Government to fix a broken economy. To make is sustainable again and we have done that over the past eight or nine years.”

“We are also a party that is big thinking.”

“Fine Gael is a party that is planning 20 years ahead. There has never been a plan like Project 2040 before in Ireland in its level of ambition.”

“We are looking to fundamentally reshape Ireland over the next two decades, away from the dominance of Dublin and the east coast.”

“To look at cities like Cork as real counterbalances and there are many building blocks that we have put in place to make sure that works.”

“So Fine Gael is a party of prudence and responsible economic management. But we are also a party of big ideas.”

“We recognise as a political party that rural Ireland cannot and will not be left behind when it comes to essential high speed broadband infrastructure and that is what this project is about.”

“Can I say that because of the policy direction of the last seven or eight years, we now have an economy that can pay for it.”

“That is what makes this viable and sustainable.”

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he is happy for the Oireachtas Communications Committee to carry out an inquiry into the terms of the controversial plan to deliver broadband to rural Ireland.

During Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil today Mr Varadkar said the government has been transparent about the process because of the importance of the plan.

It said funding for the delivery of broadband would not be needed until 2021, when “the budgetary impact will be felt”.

He insisted the plan will connect 1.1 million homes and help prevent the digital divide from widening. However, he said he would welcome an inquiry in to the plan after Granahan McCourt was awarded preferred bidder status last week.

Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin called for the Oireachtas Communications Committee to carry out a “full inquiry”.

He told the Dáil the public is “annoyed” and “frustrated” by the cost of the plan and accused Fine Gael of “electioneering” by progressing it plan prior to the local and European elections.

“Taoiseach, I would remind you it is not your money, it is the taxpayers’ money and you are electioneering here.”

Mr Varadkar denied the Government confirmed Granahan McCourt was the preferred bidder to coincide with the upcoming elections.

He said regardless of the timing of the announcement before or after the election opposition parties would have suggested it was done with the election in mind. Doing it after the election would have led to calls that the Government was hiding the plan, he added.

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